View All Posts

Jan 05

Ancient Chinese Secret, huh?

Posted on January 5, 2016 at 6:10 PM by Ken Kocher

Some of you may remember that line from a 1970s Calgon television commercial. It was set in a Chinese laundry which by that time were becoming a rarity. However, in late nineteen and early twentieth century America, Chinese laundries were commonplace, even in small, rural towns like Madison. Early Chinese immigrants to the United States faced an uphill battle when it came to seeking work. They were excluded by law and by custom from numerous jobs. As a result, they started turning to laundry work. Chinese men didn’t have very much experience with laundry, but they took it up as an occupation because nothing else was available, and started to build thriving businesses.

Over the years Madison had a few Chinese laundries and proprietors. The earliest references in newspapers, while usually complimentary, used racially charged and often demeaning descriptors such as “chinaman,” “celestial citizen” (China was sometimes denoted as the Celestial Empire), “oriental,” and “one of the most intelligent of Atlanta’s colony of pig-tails.” The latter statement referred to Stonewall Lee Stevenson who, along with Young King, opened Madison’s first Chinese Laundry in the rear of the Hotel Turnell (located at the corner of Hancock and Jefferson) in the spring of 1900. The laundry occupied two large cellar rooms and had an entrance on Jefferson Street.
The next Chinese laundry was operated by Charlie Loo. The business is most likely the one visible on the 1909 Sanborn map located in a portion of what is now In High Cotton. In June of 1913, Charlie Loo ran a notice to the public in the Madisonian stating, “I am a responsible laundryman. I have cast my lot with you. I have not come to cut or raise prices. I am here to make an honest living by doing good work at reasonable prices.” By 1915, the business of laundering, or as one newspaper article put it the “washee, washee” had passed to Charlie Dart.

132-N-First-(1).jpgCharlie Dart ran his laundry, which was actually named Chinese Laundry, from a location on First Street, a portion of which is now Gussie’s House of Flowers and a portion of which is now Uptown Barber Shop. In January of 1916, Mr. Dart was “was carried to Athens Saturday night by Immigration Inspector Worden, where he was required to give a bond of $750 pending the Investigation of the charge against him— that of violating the Chinese exclusion act.” It took Charlie two years to prove that he had been born in San Francisco and was a citizen thereby avoiding deportation. Following this, Charlie Dart changed the name of his business to Ideal Laundry.

In the late 1920s, Ideal Laundry came under the proprietorship of Loo Lee presumably in the same location. Mr. Lee continued the business through the early 1930s, no doubt a difficult time to be in business. Mr. Lee, in a 1932 newspaper notice, offered what he called “depression prices.” The same article noted Loo Lee’s business as a “laundry and loo leepressing club.” Pressing clubs appear to have been creatures of the South. Voice of America reporter Tony Landphair researched pressing clubs and found that members of pressing clubs paid a yearly fee for keeping an article of clothing in excellent condition, sponged, pressed and with unbroken stitches. This usually provided a visit to a presser twice a month and insured a well-groomed appearance. Sometime in the mid to late 1930s, Mr. Lee moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and Madison’s last Chinese laundry closed. 

Madison Moments, a weekly blog highlighting Madison's rich history, is a creation of the Madison Historic Preservation Commission in collaboration with other City Boards and Departments. This installment was contributed by the Historic Preservation Commission and written by Ken Kocher, HPC staff. This volunteer board protects the community's wealth of historic resources - most notably the Madison Historic District, first listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.


You must log in before leaving your comment